Ma’ake’s SDSU Game Breakdown

Ma’ake’s SDSU Game Breakdown

Game 3 – on the road at SDSU (in Los Angeles)

How do the Utes respond to unexpectedly being on the wrong end of the score in the BYU rivalry game?  

That is the big question to be answered this week.   Talent is not enough.   Our young players who hadn’t played in a Holy War game are now fully prepared for how raucus and loud things can be, and how individual players, units and the whole team needs to adjust.  The silver lining is we won’t be shell-shocked if the Coliseum has the same energy & noise in a few weeks.

I haven’t watched any of the Aztec games yet this year, but the Utes are in a classic John Wooden kind of situation – it doesn’t matter so much what the opponent does, it’s really up to us to achieve what WE are capable of.  In reality, the coaches will have a game plan, there’s no such thing as *not* planning for the specifics of what an opponent will bring schematically in football, but we’re as close as it gets to having the basic challenge in front of us to simply execute, and then execute whatever adjustments are required. 

We’re not trying to scheme for a superior opponent, we don’t have to devise a plan to compensate for a talent mismatch… we just need to play up to our potential.  The BYU film is the blueprint for how to beat the Utes – we need to render that film as an anomaly.  We get a chance at the road to redemption in the LA Galaxy’s home field, where the LA Chargers played before moving to SoFi stadium, along with the Rams.

Another silver lining is a breakout performance by Micah Bernard, who showed multiple times the acceleration and toughness we’ve seen glimpses of.  Just the film of how he averaged 12.2 yards per carry against a swarming BYU defense will open the door for other parts of the offense to open up.

The Trib has a great article on what happened up front on offense, a detailed Xs and Os interview with all-PAC Center Nick Ford.  Nick Ford weighs in on Utah’s offensive line struggles vs. BYU. Are they fixable head of San Diego State matchup? (  This is must reading for any hard core Ute fan, and students of the game.  It’s much more complex up front than it appears.  The BYU game could slingshot the development of our O-line, if we capitalize on the opportunity. 

In the context of chaos up front, Brewer did pretty well, and if the other pieces come together & the OL gives him more time, we should see a better performance in the throw game.

San Diego State brings back head coach Brady Hoke, who had a very successful stint there before being hired away to Ann Arbor, before being replaced by Jim Harbaugh.   Hoke remembers well how Utah went into the Big House and helped lay for the foundation for him being dismissed, so there’s no shortage of motivation from the HC on down.   The Aztecs are in a very fertile recruiting ground, and typically have upper end G5 talent, so there’s really not much of a drop off in talent from what we just saw.  

The Aztecs will be primed to knock off another PAC-12 opponent in consecutive weeks, so it’s up to us to change the narrative.

Keys to the SDSU Game:

  • It’s time for player leadership to lead – anyone who has played a lot of sports knows that sports provides opportunities for redemption when faced with adversity.  The youngsters need to shake off the “blah” and bring it on Saturday.  It’s time to turn the ship, player leadership needs to step up and make it happen.
  • Restore Line of Scrimmage Dominance – it all starts up front, and if we’re going to achieve our goals in conference, this is the game to get the details fixed, get the schematics and adjustments take care of.  Whether it’s protecting our own QB, or getting pressure on the opposition’s QB, we have to do better.
  • Upper Division Xs and Os – we got beat by a highly motivated opponent with a sophisticated, superior game plan and great execution.  We need to capitalize on the high quality learning opportunity.

I’m pretty certain we’ll see the Utes rebound on Saturday.

Rivalry Game Breakdown: When Utah has the Ball

Rivalry Game Breakdown: When Utah has the Ball

BYU’s Defense

While Utah has a definable advantage on defense vs the BYU offense, when Utah has the ball is the matchup Utah fans are looking forward to, and BYU fans who’ve been paying attention probably have some trepidation about.

While their DL has generally been pretty good inside – putting Utah transfer Khyris Tonga in the NFL, for example – the DEs have been a little less formidable, recently.   Their Linebackers have been solid: good at reading their keys, active, aggressive.  The Safeties have typically not been highly athletic, but very good at reading the play and being in position to make plays.  Cornerback is where they have struggled historically, though recently they’ve gotten much more athletic, deeper and are better than they were 5-10 years ago.  

BYU’s defense provokes a lot of criticism from fans, who get frustrated at DC Ilaisa Tuiaki and the “Drop 8” philosophy, which as it implies, drops 8 men into zone coverage, where they can read the play and converge, come up to plug holes at the LOS, etc.   As a “bend don’t break” philosophy, it’s understandable how this drives fans anxiety levels upward, with fairly easy movement between the 20s, and things getting tighter closer to the endzone. 

Against Arizona this coverage left receivers or RBs out of the backfield wide open on the flanks, and under a new head coach Arizona’s offense accumulated over 400 yards, despite giving a lot of yardage back on QB sacks where it was apparent the young QB hadn’t mastered the art of getting rid of the football instead of giving up 15 yards of field position.

Because of the stakes in this game, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sitake gets involved in the defensive game plan, and lets former DC Ed Lamb make some defensive calls.   We’ll see some Drop 8, a lot of blitzes, uneven pressure packages, we’ll see everything they have.

Utah’s Offense

It’s no secret that Utah in the PAC era under Whittingham has been a run-first offense, emphasizing physicality and ball control, limiting turnovers but also not providing a lot of highlights through the aerial attack.  That began to change in 2019 as QB Tyler Huntley had a great year as the Utes went to the PAC championship game for the 2nd consecutive year.  Utah rose in the polls and was in the playoff conversation into November.

Besides raising our national stature, giving the senior Huntley fairly wide latitude to make plays downfield through the air seems to have signaled that Whitt realizes that getting to the next level requires an explosive offense to pair with Utah’s impressive defense.

Charlie Brewer doesn’t match Huntley’s athleticism, but has nearly 10,000 yards of passing, has demonstrated a cool demeanor and a very accurate arm.  Having an accurate QB opens the possibilities for what Utah can achieve offensively – throwing into coverage becomes less risky if the QB can deliver the ball within a 4 square foot target, consistently, where historically, the risk/reward ratio was high enough to inhibit those throws.

O-line – the Utes OL is both veteran & a little banged up coming out of camp.  Depending on who heals up for the BYU game and how well the group gels, I expect they’ll be fine vs BYU, but maybe not dominant.  The group played a clean game in Week 1 with no false starts, and kept pressure off Brewer impressively.  Doing that vs a more talented opponent that is determined to break a streak will be more difficult.

Running Backs – JC transfer Tavion Thomas #9 was a highlight in Game 1, manifesting why the coaches in camp were singing his praises, getting over 100 yards and 2 TDs, but Micah Bernard #2 was also effective, getting 35 yards on just 6 carries.  We saw less of TJ Pledger #5 and Chris Curry #0, but both demonstrated the talent that got them signed by Oklahoma and LSU, respectively.

Wide Receivers – losing both Samson Nacua and Bryan Thompson was a blow, but that was offset by the arrival of talented veteran Theo Howard #1, and the return of jet-quick Jaylen Dixon #25.  Solomon Enis #21 appears poised to build upon his hard work, getting a TD in Game 1, Brit Covey #16and budding talent Devaughn Vele #17 round out the top 5 WRs.

Tight Ends – this is where Utah has accumulated an embarrassment of riches, with traditional blocking TE Cole Fotheringham #89 and the swiss army knife Brant Kuithe #80 have been joined by equally talented Dalton Kincaid #85.   Kincaid was a sensation in Game 1 with two TDs.

Together, these pieces together translate into more flexibility than OC Andy Ludwig has had at Utah.  • Whether it’s running back by committee, or situational personnel placement, the RBs have enough talent together to be a threat to eat up yardage, with substantial big play ability.  Thomas was the anchor on his HS state champion 4×100 team, which explains the impressive speed he has for a back who is north of 225 lbs.  Micah Bernard has demonstrated impressive vertical acceleration, and is athletic enough to play WR, if need be.  • In the air game, Brewer’s performance in camp has energized the WRs, who now understand if they can get any amount of separation, Brewer can deliver the ball.  The TEs are ready to exploit zone openings in the middle, or for Kuithe or Kincaid, go deep.

How things may go on Saturday

The first part of the rivalry game is typically a feeling out period, where jabs are thrown to see how the defense reacts, and the defenses having great energy to try and get off the field & force a punt.  This year may be different.  Utah’s athletic advantage combined with Brewer’s decision making and accuracy might mean Ludwig looks to do damage early.

Regardless, I expect Brewer will face pressure to deliver the ball early, which with the right blocking call could open up the middle run game, will open up the screen game – to RBs, WRs and TEs – and could create one on one situations outside with our WRs vs their corners, who don’t play a lot of man coverage.   Jaylen Dixon is exceedingly difficult to cover in the open field, for one option.

Normally we use the run to setup the pass, but this year I can see the opportunity to reverse the normal course.  Once BYU’s defense has been loosened up a little, this is where the talent differential may become apparent.   If Utah can sustain drives, I expect Tavion Thomas to do substantial damage to BYU’s run defense, and they’ll abandon the Drop 8 strategy.  Likewise, against a fatigued defense, we may see Micah Bernard’s burst get extended, potentially all the way to the endzone.

I think this will be Brewer’s coming out party, he’ll dissect their defense like they typically don’t experience.  We can go with double TEs, to establish the run or to slow down the Drop/Rush 8 with short routes over the middle.  Expect that to be complimented by getting the ball to our outside threats – Solo, Theo, Vele, Dixon & Covey.  With sustained drives we’ll wear down their defense, and the 4th quarter could be a lot of Tavion Thomas picking up 5+ per carry.    

Rivalry Game Breakdown: When BYU has the Ball

Rivalry Game Breakdown: When BYU has the Ball

BYU OC Roderick & Utah’s DC Scalley know each other well, both coaches are creative and adaptive.  I would bet money there are plays in Roderick’s playbook he’s kept for this game, specifically.  The stakes for them are very high, they need to pull off some unconventional things to prevail, like they showed vs Arizona with the sweep-reverse-throwback to the QB.

Arizona was unexpectedly able to limit the run in Vegas up the middle, forced BYU to use some trickeration to open things up, which is a benefit for our defense, especially the young guys.  When you see things on film it’s a lot easier than having your coach draw up plays that *might* happen, and the upcoming opponent having already demonstrated they’ll call the circus plays makes your players pay more attention to the hypothetical, what else they might throw out there.

Like always, Job 1 is to stop the run.  In this matchup, I don’t see our Front 7 having problems doing so, though every game is cat and mouse in Xs and Os, so don’t be surprised if an unexpected blocking scheme opens some holes early, but we’ll adjust and be able to clamp down on their run game.   Allgier is a good RB, and Katoa is serviceable, but our D has been built to make a run at the Rose Bowl, and we see quality RBs every week in conference play.  Our DL is solid up front against the run, and Arizona stood up the Cougars who should have had a distinct advantage up front.      

While Jaren Hall is a nice athlete who can do damage with his legs if the defense turns its back on him, he doesn’t seem to have elite accuracy, and has a history of injuries.  If our coverage is tight, this lack of accuracy makes passes downfield a real risk, and may cause Hall to go through his progressions better, which provides time for our DEs and LBs to get to him.  I’d also expect that they get some of their WRs involved in the run game, such as Chris Jackson, who is smaller & quicker.

Hall wasn’t used extensively in design runs in Game 1, but I wouldn’t assume they’ll protect him in this game, they’ll be forced to use him in the run game, enough to keep our D honest, and if things get out of hand, we may have to assign a spy.

We saw almost nothing of their TEs in the first game, so they’ll be targeted over the middle, and on rub routes to the outside, etc.  The trouble is, Lloyd and Sewell have seen a lot of different looks, read defenses like a watch and shouldn’t have trouble limiting the effectiveness of this aspect.  Davis, McKinney (and Bishop and Latu) will converge on the ball, as well, and I think would do reasonably well if lined up against a TE at the snap.  

If there are multiple “post up” passes to TEs or even their big WRs, we’ll make an adjustment.   When they go double-TE, we’ll pull the NB and be in a base 4-3 bringing in Furey at the Stud.   If they try to be completely unconventional, Scalley can bring in 3 safeties and let McKinney come up to line up as the 3rd LB.  

Where our Front 7 is solid, our back end is still unproven.  My hunch is Roderick & Hall will try to bait Utah’s still-young cover guys to come off coverage on play break downs or rollouts outside the pocket, they’ll expect our youngsters will want to play hero ball.  Solid tackling and assignment discipline is a must in the secondary.  Don’t be surprised if there’s a hook & lateral, those kind of plays, so if our guys stay sticky in man coverage & wrap up, that tamps down the potential for that kind of BS.f we use man coverage a ton, expect Hall to try and get past the LOS with his legs on 4 deep routes, so I hope Scalley throws in some zone looks to keep Hall off balance and wreck some play calls.

With the run game under control, the plan is always to have Tafua, Fillinger, Carlton, Lloyd and Sewell get pressure on the QB, which is where the experience with Weber’s pass-rush eluding QB should help us.  QBs that struggle with accuracy tend to focus on one or two receivers, so they can get a bead on where the ball needs to be, and focus on getting it delivered accurately.  If Hall’s not scanning the field and seems to be locking on, bring NB & CB blitzes, get him thinking the clock is 3 seconds or less.  I’m not saying Hall is wildly erratic, only that he doesn’t have elite accuracy along with quick decision making…. otherwise he would have beat out Zach Wilson.  In 2019 we certainly got into Wilson’s head.

I expect both Pakua brothers to play at WR, though both have been hampered by injuries and likely won’t be at 100%.  Romney is doubtful, wincing when a knee brace was put on after getting rolled up vs AZ.  With the injuries, Pau’u is the #1, has good speed, but unless there’s a coverage breakdown or a bad angle, he shouldn’t be able to break away.  Keanu Hill looks talented but got bumped to a 2, Jackson is smaller & quicker, but hasn’t been too involved, we’ll probably see some others who may be more than decoys – they’ll be going for broke.  

Based on separation vs Weber one option is moving Phillips inside to NB and presumably let Faybian Marks #23 or Zemaiah Vaughn #16 handle the corner.  Another DB who seems like he wants game snaps is #22 Aaron Lowe, who took Ty Jordan’s number from Vonte Davis because they were really tight.  Davis is now #9 at FS.

Summary: Utah’s Defense vs BYU’s Offense is a clear net advantage for the Utes.  With leadership like Mika Tafua, Devin Lloyd and Clark Phillips III we should be disciplined, sound, quick and smothering,  If we’re disciplined & make the plays to get off the field, even the circus plays won’t be effective, it will force them to string together remarkable plays to be a serious threat of scoring more than 20, which is unlikely.

Special Teams

One painful lesson vs Weber was KO coverage.  Reggie Dunn laughed about that KO TD, saying it was the same play Jay Hill dialed up for him when he had all those TDs as a senior for the Utes.  Obviously Shah can’t let that happen, and after a painful review and stewing on it during the rain delay, coverage was fine after that.  While it hasn’t been featured much, we should try to get better field position if a KO to us is playable.

I expect BYU will try to limit potential damage by Covey on punt returns, as he can flip a field quickly, with great vision, fearlessnous and ability to evade, so look for their punter to angle for the sidelines to hem Covey in.  Utah’s Punt coverage shows no signs of needing work – let’s hope that continues on Saturday.   After the Weber fiasco, I expect both KO and punt coverage to be solid.

Until they prove otherwise, I would have to give the nod to BYU’s punter and their kicker Oldroyd.  Our punter Peasley is from the growing Australian pipeline pioneered by Tommy Hackett, but is still pretty green.   Jason Redding missed his first PAT in a couple of years (granted after a penalty made it more difficult).   I have faith in Redding and Peasley, just giving a slight nod to BYU until they prove it under the pressure of a heated rivalry game in Week 2.

BYU wants this monkey off their back – if we win on Saturday, some of the players from their last victory will have kids on missions by the time we play again in ’24.

Next up – Utah’s Offense vs BYU’s Defense + Intangibles & Summary